Grouse Guns

How hunting preferences have changed over 20 years.

What's the perfect shotgun for ruffed grouse? Don't bother to look. There isn't any one such gun, mainly because the shooting tastes of grouse hunters and the terrain over which they pursue their quarry varies from region to region. At least 56 manufacturers make "grouse guns," representing four different gauges (12-, 16-, 20- and 28-) and all the typical barrel configurations (autoloaders, side-by-sides, over/unders and pumps). I know this because I took a close look at recent field-notebook entries of more than 300 grouse hunters, reported last year to the "Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters" newsletter (E-mail: GrouseTales@msn.com).

I figured that this hard-core group of dedicated hunters from 17 states and three Canadian provinces would have the most valid opinions regarding what the best grouse gun is. In addition to the number of hours hunted, dog points, birds flushed, birds shot and other hunting details, each hunter had reported the brand and specifications of the gun he carried. After I had put all the gun data together in a spreadsheet, I came up with an astonishing 120 combinations of gauge, barrel type and manufacturer.

Ruffed grouse hunters concede that their particular sport is probably the most demanding of all wing-shooting endeavors, but few of them can agree on which guns are best suited for it. In order to escape this quagmire of diversity, I tried charting the reports just from those hunters who favored the top 10 gun combinations. This brought some clarity to the subject.

I had also done this same analysis 20 years ago for the season ending in 1982. Personal computers had just become available a few months earlier that year-I didn't have one, so I crunched the numbers with paper, pencil and an adding machine. I condensed all the past and present survey results into two lists (see charts). The comparisons are interesting.

Numbers Don't Lie
Between 1982 and 2002, there were several significant changes in grouse gun preferences. Here's an example: In 1982, a majority (53 percent) of hunters surveyed said that they preferred the autoloading shotgun, but 20 years later, only 14 percent of respondents were using them. What's going on here-sheer dedication to the pursuit of perfection? Yes, I think so. The typical grouse hunter owns and feeds a bird dog, focuses on grouse hunting to the exclusion of all other game (except maybe woodcocks) and is willing to sweat for hours amid briers and tangled grapevines to bag an average of only a half-dozen grouse per season. He wants a gun that works under conditions that can be surprisingly demanding. Consequently, the grouse gun has continued to evolve from an original all-purpose, all-game "hunting device" into a highly specialized sporting instrument.

In 1982, the most popular gun was the 20-gauge autoloader Remington Model 1100. It was just under one percentage point ahead of the 20-gauge Browning Citori over/under. In 2002, the 20-gauge Browning Citori over/ under led the pack with a 16.1 percent following, trailed closely by the 12-gauge Citori (15.3 percent). Is the Browning over/under the perfect shotgun for grouse? Well, if you could get all the listed Citori owners to quit arguing about whether the 20-gauge is better than the 12-gauge, the gun could stake a claim to the title. Certainly, at 61/4 pounds the Citori Superlight Feather 12-gauge is an easy carry, sweetly balanced and quick to the shoulder. But the Brownings are closely shadowed by the 20-gauge Ruger Red Label over/under.

Twenty years ago there were no Ruger shotguns of any kind on the Top 10 list, although the 20-gauge Red Label has been available to upland hunters since 1977. This suggests that while the Red Label was slow to catch on in grouse-hunting circles, it became a solid favorite once it did.

Regardless of brand, we can begin to consider today's perfect grouse gun as being an over/uer, with another two-barreled gun, the 20-gauge Ithaca-SKB side-by-side, coming in fourth on the list with 10.5 percent support. Interesting, considering that the gun has not been produced since the early 80s.

Presumably nobody is talking about the pricey Ithaca Classic Doubles, which were being manufactured by another company with Ithaca's blessing. That arrangement fell by the wayside last spring, however, and it's rumored that Ithaca will offer its own double guns again beginning in 2004. Stand by for news of that. Other notable changes in the grouse gun list after 20 years include a significant increase in the popularity of Beretta over/under models (No. 411, etc.); they jumped from sharing last place in 1982 to fifth and sixth places in 2002. The Franchi autoloader holds a position on both lists, but in two different gauges (first in 12-gauge, now in 20-gauge), and the 20-gauge Benelli Black Eagle is now a contender. The 12-gauge over/under Winchester Models 101 and 1001 shared last place with Beretta at the bottom of the 1982 Top 10 list. In 2002, it's the Parker side-by-side 20-gauge and Remington 20-gauge pump. Almost the only rating difference in the bottom ranks is due to alphabetical order. [pagebreak] Gauging the Changes
One thing that hasn't changed over two decades has been the popularity of the 20-gauge. It's at the top, which says something about the timeless appreciation for a gauge that gets the job done without entailing the need to lug around a heavy gun. The ruffed grouse is a rather soft-feathered bird (compared to waterfowl, for example) and most shots are taken within 30 yards, making the usual 20-gauge load of 7/8 ounce more than sufficient.

Another factor is versatility; this gauge can pack a greater punch in 3-inch loads when the need arises. The real loser over two decades has been the 12-gauge, which has made room for the 16-gauge and the 28-gauge. Again, we're seeing that less weight and faster handling properties are de rigueur in this new era of grouse hunting. This is especially true with the 28-gauge, for which the ninefold increase in popularity to 10.8 percent is absolutely astounding. A few of the 28-gauge guns in the 2002 survey were autoloaders, but most were two-burner guns from 14 different manufacturers. The most popular 28-gauge side-by-sides were made by AyA and the over/unders by Ruger.

Why is gun selection so important to your enjoyment of this wing shooting sport? Consider the challenges that the ruffed grouse throws our way. Its flush has been described with every possible verb that conveys the bird's sudden release of energy. Ruffed grouse "warp-factor" into flight with such furious energy and are able to disappear from sight so quickly that the mind reels in protest. A grouse! Bang! The hunter is left gasping and blinking while, somewhere up ahead, a vortex of spinning autumn leaves unwinds and settles to the ground. Often the hunter shoots twice-Bang! Bang!-using the first attempt only to set the stage for serious business, much like a speaker who clears his throat before stepping to the podium.

More Barrels, Please
Between 1982 and 2002, the use of autoloaders among surveyed grouse hunters dropped by a third (from 31.3 percent to 20.6 percent). Why? Presumably because hunters have bought in to the classic image of a grouse hunter moving through the reds and golds of an upland fall with a double-barrel or over/under in hand. The pump shotgun isn't faring well, either, descending in popularity from 13.7 percent to 4.8 percent.

The changes for the over/under and side-by-side models from 1982 to 2002 are almost exactly equal. They've marched in lockstep from about 27 percent in 1982 to about 37 percent in 2002, demonstrating the typical grouse hunter's indecision regarding the right gun to choose.

Imagine lying awake and trying to decide whether the barrels of your next gun should be beside each other, or one over the other. Truly, life can be tough for a grouse hunter.hould be beside each other, or one over the other. Truly, life can be tough for a grouse hunter.